My colleague Kevin Dilks introduced me to the Bredbo Christmas Barn today, on our way back to Canberra from a meeting in Cooma. I’ve often driven past, thinking how strange it was to see a shop dedicated to Christmas decorations, open June to December, so far out from the closest large city. And yet today the place was busy as, with head elves Leanne and Neville de Smet working alongside a cheerful staff to resource interior decorators focused on Christmas. Nativity scenes, some with koala bears and kangaroos as the key players, sit alongside Santa, angels, Magi, snowmen and elves. There are sections devoted to colour schemes, gold, green, blue, ice crystal. Leanne and Neville started the shop when they were running a gift shop in Westfield Woden and moved out to Bredbo as part of a commitment to a balanced lifestyle (five days a week) and affordable rent.
Talking with Neville we heard about the people who come in and how they respond to the Christmas theme. The Christmas decoration culture is something treasured by a wide range of people in Australia, not just by people with Christian religious convictions. We often hear about people anxious to remove nativity scenes from public places, citing fear of offending people who do not hold a Christian faith. Yet we heard today about the Muslim couple who visited to purchase their own Christmas decorations, delighted to connect with the local culture.
Someone asked Neville where they got the idea from. He answered by saying it all began with a baby in a manger. The use of greenery, figurines, tinsel and baubles to decorate homes in December has its origins long before the birth of Jesus. The celebration of the winter solstice, the turn towards spring, was adapted by Christian missionaries as a festival marking the birth of Christ. Over time elaborate customs associated with local cultural practices were formed across Europe, mixing “pagan” beliefs and civic religion with traditional and folk approaches to the birth of Jesus.
I see the popular culture associated with Christmas, despite its commercialism, as an opportunity for connection, conversation and contextualisation. This is a time when shopkeepers and church leaders have the potential to work together. I’m inspired by the example of Paeroa, New Zealand, where Methodist/Presbyterian minister Stan Stewart in the 1990s turned a sleepy town into a tourism venue associated with Christmas lights and decoration. Years later the vision is continued at the Maritime Museum there, online at paeroachristmas.com. Working within the culture rather than against it, modelled by those early missionaries in the UK and Europe, has both risks and openings today. The religious significance of Christmas is lost on many people in Australia, and deliberately ignored. However there is something positive about a community that has its commercialism tempered by a commitment to give rather than receive.
The Churches Advertising Network in the UK began with the focus on fashion and gift giving associated with upmarket stores last year, with a poster containing the words, “However You Dress It Up, Christmas Begins with Christ”. That’s a message worth coming back to.